by Paul Smith
Recently for The Corsair, I took part in a conference call interview with Bill Maher (stand-up comedian and host of Real Time with Bill Maher on HBO) who is currently promoting the DVD release of his documentary Religulous, which lampoons what Bill sees as the ridiculous beliefs systems of the world’s different religions. Unfortunately, there were several other journalists from different college publications and we only had 30 minutes, so I only got to ask one question. You can listen to or read my question and his response below.
Me: You once said on Real Time, I can’t remember who asked it, but someone asked if you believed in god, and you gave a sort of vague answer about how you believe in energy. So, what I was wondering, and this may sound like a loaded question, but I am an agnostic, I was wondering if you think that there could possibly be realms to existence and matter that play any role in the physical world which scientific instruments can’t detect, and if religion has ever said anything, either in an esoteric or exoteric context, that has added to that intellectual discussion in any form.
Bill Maher: Yes, I’m sure it has. And could there be something? Absolutely. You know Richard Dawkins addresses this well in his book. He says if we’re talking about energy or nature, if we’re going to expand the definition of “god” to really anything that we don’t understand, then we might as well just not have the discussion. But mostly when people talk about religion, they’re talking about personal gods, people you pray to, people who hear your prayers, who fight devils, this kind of stuff. And by the way, who need to be worshiped. So, could there be something? Yes, I’m sure there is something. I mean, you know we can never answer this question, “Why is there anything? How did we get here?” Obviously there are forces at work which are beyond our kin. But I’m pretty sure the answer to the big question is not personal gods with suspiciously human characteristics, okay? That kind of thinking, you know, is what we’re really attacking here.
I had several other questions I wanted to ask obviously, but a few of the other journalists asked similar questions that I was planning on positing. So, I had to ask one that was further down my list, and one I thought no one else would ask.
I thought his answer was pretty good, but I also partly disagree with him (at full disclosure, I am a huge fan of Maher’s). In all honesty, my question was pretty loaded, but it is difficult to explain why that is so in any sort of succinct manner.
I’ve wanted to stay away from religion to the best of my ability in The Corsair, simply because there is no brief way to express my thoughts on the issue.
It’s not that my perspective on the issue would be so complex that it would be over anyone’s head. On the contrary, I think if I took the time to express my thoughts pretty much everyone would comprehend it and either agree or disagree. It’s just that to do so in any satisfactory way would simply take far too much rambling that I’m sure no one has any interest to read (not to mention in order to comfortably couch this within my agnosticism would take several long-winded caveats, including a rant about how we can never escape the human being’s limited ability to receive and process information and the limited ability to communicate such information).
However, I did get to ask Bill Maher a question, so I suppose I will try my best briefly (relatively speaking) to explain how I felt about his response.
Bill has an agnostic leaning tendency that puts him a bit at odds with the atheistic Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens of the world, and Religulous and his answer to my question expresses this tendency well.
However, so much of the religious criticism of late, whether of the Maher or Dawkins sort, seems to spend so much time trying to dispel what I call the “Santa Claus version” of god, the idea that we must view the concept of “god” as the Single Sentient Creator Being in the Sky Who Watches Everything You Do and Judges You.
I rejected this Santa Claus-like notion of god as nonsense when I was about twelve years old, as I’m sure many others also did.
I am well aware that a large percentage of the population has not come that far yet. So, I understand the desire on Bill’s part to make the argument he has made. However, for me, the discussion becomes repetitive and boring and seriously lacking in substance and context.
Let’s first take Bill’s remark regarding “if we’re going to expand the definition of god to really anything we don’t understand…” His statement operates on what I consider to be an extremely fallacious assumption, which is that there is some sort of universally agreed upon definition of “god” for which we are expanding.
No such universal agreement exists. Even the dictionary lacks a concise and all encompassing definition of “god.”
Note*- Even though it’s one of my favorite topics and probably one the areas I have spent the most time researching, I’m just not going to get into the etymological history of the word “god” and how it has been used and misused in different religions, and I’m certainly not going to get into how, in my opinion, the contemporary conception of the Santa Claus-God does not jive at all, historically, etymologically, and esoterically, with the Abrahamic concepts of “yahweh” and “elohim.” I also won’t be going into my take on monotheism or why I think none of the world’s major religions has ever exhibited a true “monotheistic” doctrine, and that includes all the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) as well as Buddhism which has a pantheon of spiritual beings associated with its cosmology.
However, suffice and obvious to say, no one person, religion or denomination can agree on what a “god” is either in the theological, philosophical, or even scientific sense.
So, let’s move on to when Bill invoked (pardon the pun) the idea of “personal gods with suspiciously human characteristics.” He uses this phrase as a pejorative, e.g. in a mocking sense to denote a concept he finds ridiculous.
This statement once again operates on what I consider to be a false assumption. His statement assumes the only valid interpretation available is to presuppose the idea of a “god with human characteristics” is something that must be taken literally.
This is an area which really ventures into the different models of mythological/religious interpretation, e.g. the rationalism approach versus the metaphorical approach.
In the framing of his answer, Bill has taken the rational or literal approach that suggests we must think of these “gods” only as literally real entities which exist separate from the minds of those who worshipped them, and thereby also suggests this was the original intention of how these beings were to be regarded.
It is obviously impossible to know what was truly thought and intended by the ancient religious cults which utilized these “gods” in their rituals and mythos, especially considering the original cults which conceived of such ideas usually consisted of very small handfuls of people and, as such, should be regarded separately from the movements (and organized religions) their ideas spawned. (Also, here I’m referencing “gods” with a lowercase “g” as in the concept of spiritual beings associated with different culture’s religions/mythologies. As I said before, I’m not going to get into “monotheism” or the concept of “God” with an uppercase “G.”)
But there is no reason to automatically assume the ancients took such concepts literally. It is just as possible the ancients took a metaphorical approach to their “gods.”
Bill talks about the pointlessness of expanding the definition of “god” to “energy” or “nature,” but it is entirely possible that the ancients did conceive of their “gods” as metaphorical aspects of nature and energy, and did not necessarily take the personifications literally.
And the fact that such “gods” were conceived with “human characteristics” is not so suspicious to me either.
Rudolf Steiner once wrote something interesting on this issue, though he was paraphrasing the Greek philosopher Xenophanes. He suggested that if horses rather than humans had the ego-consciousness we possess and the ability to communicate in language, then the “horses would make gods assuming the visages of horses.”
People write and think about what they know and what is familiar. If you are going to imbue an aspect of nature or energy with the spirit of personality as a literary device, the easiest metaphor available is to personify it with human characteristics. (See the work of Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell and Israel Regardie, to name a few, who have all written extensively about this.)
One of my favorite examples of a similar concept is the ancient idea of the “classical elements,” being earth, water, air and fire. The ancient Greeks specifically used these elements, but many different cultures had similar or identical ideas. Every object within the material world was said to be represented by one of these four elements.
The rationalism school of interpretation suggests they literally thought all objects were made of one of these materials. But the metaphorical approach could suggest what they were really saying is that all forms of matter could take one of four states: solid (earth), liquid (water), gas (air), or plasma/fiery state (fire).
Many people have written about the striking similarities that modern quantum theory and astrophysics share with some of the ideas expressed in the cosmology and esotericism of ancient religions/mythologies.
Ancient religions/mythologies were the proto-sciences of the time, and I, for one, am not willing to disregard everything they said as the ramblings of unlearned savages (even though a fair amount of the cultural and political fluff appended to the ancient religious texts probably could and should be disregarded).
What is even more fascinating to me is that the ancients did not possess fancy instruments and computers to process their data. All they had were their minds.
And I am aware that the vast majority of religious followers today (probably 99%) practice a very literal exoteric interpretation of the original religious texts. But the vast majority of people also thought Transformers was a great movie and continue to buy Nickelback albums.